Supreme comfort for US scientists

Libel rejected as court cites 'moral obligation' to act in research misconduct cases. Paul Jump writes

February 3, 2011

A long-running attempt by a postdoctoral researcher to sue her former boss for libel has ended in failure after a US court ruled that scientists have a moral obligation to speak up when research misconduct is suspected.

Meena Chandok filed her suit in 2005 against Daniel Klessig, a senior scientist and the former president of Cornell University's Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research.

Dr Chandok's results on plants' production of nitric oxide to protect themselves against pathogens were reported in two high-profile papers, including one published by the journal Cell in 2003.

However, she resigned the following year, citing Dr Klessig's "demeaning behavior" towards her, and none of the other scientists in the laboratory was able to replicate her results. After repeatedly asking Dr Chandok to help, Dr Klessig retracted the papers without her consent in 2004.

Dr Chandok sued for damages on the grounds that Dr Klessig had defamed her by suggesting in communications to funders, journal editors and other scientists that she might have fabricated her data. She claimed the statements had been made "out of spite".

A Cornell investigation found no conclusive evidence of data alteration, but criticised Dr Chandok's "egregious" failure to keep adequate records. It concluded that there were "grounds for good faith suspicion of scientific misconduct".

Her case was dismissed in 2009, a decision now upheld by the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. It ruled that Dr Klessig's statements were legally privileged because they concerned matters on which he had a "legal or moral obligation" to speak out, or were made "among communicants who share a common interest".

Dr Klessig said he was grateful for the decision and took some satisfaction from playing a "small role" in establishing a point of law that would "assist and protect" other researchers in similar situations.

Sile Lane, public liaison and campaign manager at Sense About Science, which campaigns for the reform of English libel law, said that people making allegations of research misconduct were "taking a risk" in the UK.

"We know scientists here are not speaking out about, and science journals are not publishing, important matters such as research misconduct and fraud to avoid libel cases where available defences are complicated, cases are unpredictable and long, and the costs are very high," she said.

But she added that researchers making good-faith allegations of research misconduct would be protected by the public-interest defence that campaigners are pressing to see included in the government's draft defamation reform bill, expected to be published in March.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

For the full legal judgment, see: http://bit.ly/e71Qfc

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